7 Common Pitfalls to Avoid When Developing an App for Your Startup

I get asked all the time, “We’re a startup: what are the biggest mistakes we can avoid when developing an app?” Having been an entrepreneur for more than a decade, with most of that time spent in the custom mobile software development space, it’s a natural question for me to field. And it is a vital question to answer if you’re thinking about or about to build a mobile app. You know the digital landscape almost demands a mobile app from new businesses, so achieving something that delights and empowers your customers/partners without breaking your bank is imperative. Given that most startups I work with have limited (or severely limited) resources, the shots they do take have to hit.

The central theme I want to leave you with is this: custom mobile app development is most like a video game — you can only win the game once you level up. And to do that, you have to navigate these seven pitfalls if you want to be successful in the mobile app space as a startup:

1- Ya gotta have a product — not a feature

A great idea is infectious. When you feel like you have one, you can’t get it out of your mind. It infects your very way of thinking. That can be a great and healthy thing when the idea is strong and could be the basis for a game-changing product. But, a great idea is not necessarily all you need, because I can’t tell you the number of great ideas I’ve heard that aren’t products at all, they’re features. And features don’t make an app.

To be fair, a great app is comprised of great features. But, if those features aren’t there in service of an actual product, your app isn’t long for this world. Because if you’re improving on another, bigger, more established company’s idea of adding a new feature here or there? That company will simply adopt your ideas into their app, and you’re sunk.

2- Prototype, then pitch

When it comes time to get funding for your app, it pays to prototype. In addition to pitching investors from your perfectly polished slide deck, try also using a tool like InVision to build a prototype that you can load on your phone. It can take PhotoShop stacks and load it into the phone, complete with animations and action buttons. That way, with a designer and some light lifting, you can mock up what your app might look like, work like and why. It’s much easier to evaluate your concept in this format and can make for a much easier pitch when trying to secure seed funding.

Everything in mobile app development is about leveling up — you don’t have to win the game right off the bat. If you level up consistently, you end up winning. Prototype, level up, get funding, level up, develop app, level up, launch… you get the idea.

3- Think value, not price

I know all too well that your resources are limited. You can’t afford to waste money on expensive software development partners if you can get the same quality for less money elsewhere. But at the same time, your focus must be on value, not price.

Far too often, I see startups that want to build an app, so they bring a freelancer on staff to build it. That’s not necessarily a bad idea every time, but it can also limit your thinking and hinder your app.

For example, you might hire a freelancer or offer a developer equity in exchange for their dev time. But most developers or freelancers have one or two specialties (say, Objective C or .NET). And, what often happens is that they try to shoehorn their solution for you into what they’re comfortable working in. When you try to save money like this, it can often backfire when you discover that you have made tech stack decisions early on that are going to end up causing you valuable lost time and money.

When you focus on cost instead of value, you can often low ball your way out of the better solution. Yes, absolutely be judicious in how you spend your money, but focus on value beyond just cost.

4- Partners not just in name

Almost every mobile developer’s website will trumpet their commitment to partnership. It’s something everyone says, but too few actually deliver on. If you make the choice to partner with someone on your development project, you have to use your intuition and judgment to select a partner that doesn’t think in terms of how much they can bill you, but rather what solution can they put together for you that will honestly help you achieve your mission. That has to be their primary purpose for wanting to work with you. If it’s not, or you don’t get that feeling, keep stepping.

5- Avoid the version 1 monster

The biggest, most common and most detrimental pitfall I see is the Version 1 monster. Let’s say you’ve leveled up a few times. You’ve thought up a product, not a feature. You’ve prototyped the app and secured funding. Now, it’s time to develop the real deal. You know you have a great idea and you can’t wait to bring it to life. But, as you’re building it out, you think of another feature that might be great to add in. Or, you second guess your design aesthetic and chose to change it. Or you want to alter or improve 100 other things. Scope creep creeps.

This is anathema to leveling up — when you try to make the app perfect for version 1, version 1 never makes it to market. It costs way more than it ought to, and you sacrifice first mover advantages every day your app isn’t out in the world.

6- Iterate (aka, LEVEL UP!)

Point 6 follows closely in line with point 5 — the key to sustained success when building a new app is to iterate. Get your product to its minimum viable stage, and get it out into the market. Start accruing users or subscribers. Build a following. Then, upgrade. Iterate. Continue working on the app, consistently releasing strong updates with added functionality and reliability. In other words, level up! Much as version 1 doesn’t have to be perfect, neither does version 2. Or 3. Or 4. And so on. Just keep improving, keep leveling up, and you win the game.

7- The new gold standard

The final pitfall I would warn you against is a newer entrant to this list, and that is to not judge success exclusively by number of users. This metric used to be the gold standard for judging an app’s future success, viability and ultimately, investment worthiness. But, more and more angel investors, venture capital firms, etc. want to see a clear path to revenue generation. Amassing users is no longer enough to pique the interests of the biggest and best investors; they want to see a clear path to profitability some day. Be ready for this expectation and you can anticipate the types of questions you’ll need to answer convincingly.

These seven pitfalls haunt too many otherwise strong startups. But, if you keep the video game outlook in mind and focus on continuously leveling up, you have a much better chance of getting where you want to go.

By Jeff Francis                                                                                                                                                                                                     Co-Founder & President of ENO8 & DEC Mentor

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